How and How Not to Criticize a Revival (or a Critic)
Someone emailed The Stream a critical response to my recent column on the Asbury Revival. I sent an answer back by email, and got a bounce-back reply telling me there was no such email address. I double-checked it. Perhaps he mistyped it. I’m responding here instead, but this isn’t only for Mr. S ___ , who wrote the message. There is something here that can apply to all of us, as I explain below.
Here’s the complaint:
Tom Gilson, your article was not well received here. There is an undeniable revival happening and it is spreading and hopefully will continue to spread and bring thousands of college students, college staff and professors and hopefully many others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in spite of those on the outside that throw cold water on it. In spite of your perfunctory, prerequisite first paragraph I feel that this is exactly what you are doing. Are people getting saved and giving their lives to Jesus or aren’t they? Is this going to become some sort of ‘dangerous cult’, defined as a group that doesn’t align perfectly with your own personal doctrine? Please. Embrace it and be part of it. My heart is filled with joy at the news yours should be also and trusting God to keep it in the bounds of truth.
Greetings, Mr. S ___,
Thank you for your comments. It appears you believe I have falsely judged the Asbury events, without a full first-hand awareness of the realities there.
Your note begins with the ominous phrase, “not well received here.” You do not say where “here” is, or whom you may be representing with this message, or how many. It could mean anything from, “not well received by my wife and me in our living room in Tacoma,” to, “not well received by the worship and teaching leaders at Asbury.”
I know it’s at least possible (though you do not say so) that you are speaking for some larger group and closer in to the events. For that reason, and in the spirit of repentance and revival, I want to ask your help correcting some serious misapprehensions evident in your message.
Judging From a Distance
I opened that article saying I was delighted with what God is doing at Asbury, praying with joy, and thankful for it. You described that as “perfunctory and prerequisite.” By definition those words imply you think I said those things reluctantly, out of some sort of necessity, and not entirely honestly. As if I had to say it, in order to look good or to fulfill some conventional expectations. You also seem to think I would define a “dangerous cult” as “a group that doesn’t align perfectly with [my] personal doctrine.”
What I wrote at the opening was neither “perfunctory” nor “requisite,” I assure you. I was speaking from my heart. As to my “personal doctrine,” I have convictions, obviously, but I also have warm, non-judgmental fellowship with Christians who disagree with me, within the boundaries of historical creedal Christian confession. It’s hard to see how you could read what I wrote about historic Christian belief and still think I would set my “personal doctrine” as the standard!
Here’s the most surprising thing about your criticism, though. One major point of your email to me seems to be that it’s wrong to judge prematurely, from a distance, without full knowledge of what is going on. I agree with that. Yet even as you make that complaint, you judge my heart on matters that no person could possibly know from a distance. Have you not done the very thing for which you want to criticize me?
Human and Spiritual Realities Alongside Revival
Having said that, your questions do lead me to wonder, do you see me actually critiquing God’s work or anyone involved in revival there at Asbury (or elsewhere) in what I wrote? I do not think I did. I certainly did not intend to. Perhaps if I did you can show me specifically where it was. (Specific correction is so much more helpful than vague complaints.)
What I did say was that we — and especially leaders at Asbury — should keep our eyes open. Human nature and spiritual battle, I said, can bring “falsehood and contamination … nipping at the edges.” That’s no criticism of the revival, it’s a fact of human life and spiritual battle. It’s been true at every place and every time since the Fall, including times of revival. I was just reading Nehemiah this morning. He dealt with it in spades.
I also doubt you would disagree with setting a guard against it. Surely you know that false teaching was a major concern in the early church. Where wheat is planted, said Jesus, the enemy may very likely show up with seeds of tares. We should expect that. It doesn’t mean we are criticizing the wheat!
Obviously Jesus and the apostles trusted God (as you said we should) to keep the growing church within the bounds of truth. It was no passive trust, though. They issued stern warnings against false teachers. Very serious and very stern, actually: see Matt. 24:4, Matt. 7:21-22, Romans 16:16-18, 2 Cor. 11:3-15, Gal. 1:6-9, 1 Tim. 6:3-5, Titus 3:9-10, all of 2 Peter 2, and 2 John 7-11, to name some of the passages. Surely you do not think Jesus, Peter, John, and Paul were throwing “cold water” on God’s work with those warnings!
Specific Correction and Admonition
Perhaps I missed something, though. Is there something specific I wrote that is factually false or distorted? If so, please let me know so I can specifically correct it. I am always more than happy to acknowledge errors I’ve made, and to correct them publicly. The same goes if I have criticized some good thing or person falsely. Again, though, I would ask you to tell me specifically where that is.
And then I would ask you to recall the message you seemed to want to bring me: It is not good to judge from a distance without full first-hand knowledge of what or whom one is judging. I made every effort not to do that in my article. In the spirit of repentance and revival, I am open to correction. I trust you will likewise think again about your own harsh and inaccurate judgment of me
I am for revival. For decades I have prayed God would send it! I pray that His work at Asbury would take root in worship, in joy, in prayer, in global impact, and in truth. I pray He will protect His work from those who would sneak in with tares to plant among the wheat.
You are delighting in God’s work there, too, I know, and giving Him glory for it. Praise be to Him for it! Please know that I am not against you. Please do not represent me as if I am, and please do not support any such misrepresentation being passed around. Thank you.
Grace and peace,
P.S. By the way, asking questions about revival at Asbury is right in line with the way leaders at Asbury are leading it — wisely so, in my opinion. By the testimony of a friend who visited there last week, corroborated here, they aren’t rushing to call it “revival.” They’re giving it time to manifest its fruit first.
Why It Matters
And that’s the end of it. Why publish it openly here, you may ask? Partly to set the record straight, and partly to offer an example of how to disagree constructively.
Christians are often too quick to judge what we do not know, especially others’ purposes, intentions, character, and heart. That is part of the point of Jesus’ command, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” In this online era we interact with hundreds of people whose hearts we do not know and cannot know. All we know is the words they write on the page.
There are times when criticism is called for. I criticize Mr. S ___’s criticisms here. I can do that responsibly enough because I can see his criticisms right here in front of me. At no point do I speak of what I do not know — his heart — until near the end where I speak positively, in the spirit of 1 Cor. 13:7. I do speak to what he wrote. I was frank about it, to be sure, but no more than he was with me, and on much more solid ground.
It won’t surprise me if someone considers my own answer a bad example of constructive Christian disagreement. Please feel free to tell me so. I am happy to listen. Tell me in specific terms, please, not vague generalities, which rarely tell a person what he might be able to do differently. And for your own sake, be cautious about judging what you do not know.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.